Roberta Matuson, on Difficult Conversations

If you want to understand what often stops teams from being more productive and successful, look no further than the tendency of most people to avoid difficult conversations.

Recognizing this fact, leadership and talent expert Roberta Matuson developed seven principles that take the edge off such conversations and makes it easier for all involved to sit down and talk effectively.

She writes about them in her latest book Can We Talk?: Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work.

If you have something that needs to be said, don’t miss my latest podcast episode with Roberta.

Episode Details

Show Notes

If you want to understand what often stops teams from being more productive and successful, look no further than the tendency of most people to avoid difficult conversations.

Recognizing this fact is leadership and talent expert Roberta Matuson, who has dedicated her latest book Can We Talk?: Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work to this universal workplace conundrum.

Asked to name the one topic that most people are afraid to bring up at work, Roberta says that it’s unquestionably that of employee performance.

For managers, this hesitation takes place when a team member is failing to meet expectations or when the time has come to inform them that they’re being let go. On the other hand, employees may struggle to tell their boss that the way they’re being managed isn’t working for them or that they deserve a raise or a promotion.

Roberta reminds us that “people don’t work for companies. They work for people.”

Can We Talk? offers seven principles that guide people toward “the right conditions for a meaningful discussion,” helping both parties see situations from each other’s point of view in order to move forward in a productive manner.

These are: confidence, clarity, compassion, curiosity, compromise, credibility, and courage.

Listen in as Roberta breaks down a few of these principles, while also explaining what drives satisfaction at work, a tactful approach to letting staff go (even at the executive level), and how to “select for success” to ensure your new hires only do work that energizes them.


Amanda Setili (00:05):

We all want to do work that we love. And as leaders, entrepreneurs, and employees, wouldn’t it be great to create workplaces where work feels like play, where people are tuned in to the changes going on in the world, around them, where they’re constantly learning, spotting new opportunities and taking action to go after them. I’m Amanda stilly. And this is the fearless growth podcast where my guests and I will explore the mindsets and choices that lead you and your organization to outstanding performance Today. My guest is Roberta Matheson. She’s a leadership and talent expert, author of six books, including the September, 2021 release. Can we talk seven principles for managing difficult conversations at work? Welcome Roberta.

Roberta Matuson (00:55):

Thank you. I’m glad to be here, Amanda.

Amanda Setili (00:58):

Just to let me make sure that I understand what we’re talking about, what are the most typical types of difficult conversations that you see coming up that especially the ones that people are most inept at are most afraid to embark upon?

Roberta Matuson (01:14):

Well that would most definitely be conversations relating to people’s performance at work, whether that’s, you know, somebody is not meeting expectations or perhaps you’ve gotten to the point where you realize that, you know, they’re not going to be with you longterm and then how do you transition them out of the organization? So I think those are the toughest from a manager perspective. However, from an employee’s perspective, it might be a conversation where they have to tell their boss that the way they’re being managed doesn’t work for them, or perhaps they feel strongly that, you know, they deserve a raise or promotion. I think those are tough conversations for many people,

Amanda Setili (02:01):

Right? And so in your book, you lay out a framework with seven steps for tackling this. Can you tell us a little bit about what those are and especially, you know, delve a little bit deeper into the one or two that you think is most misunderstood or most needs to be people need to understand

Roberta Matuson (02:18):

There are actually seven principles and the one that I would start with is the principle on clarity. And that’s really getting very crystal clear on what you hope to achieve as a result of having this conversation with someone so that when you map out the conversation, you know, when you’ve reached your objective and you don’t keep going on and on and on, right. So I think that is really, really good to get a handle on. And then another one of my favorite principles is curiosity because I have found in my experience as an executive coach and as an to leaders in fortune 500 companies, that most of us don’t do a very good job of listening and we don’t do a great job of asking questions. And so what winds up happening is, you know, we just keep going on, but we don’t, we don’t get down into the nitty gritty, like, well, you know, why do you feel that way? Or how did you reach that conclusion? Or, you know, can you walk me through how you got these results? And so we’re not curious enough, right? We just want to say what we need to say and get the heck out of the room.

Amanda Setili (03:35):

That’s really interesting because I would think that if you’re, if you’re certain that you want to let someone go, for instance, you may be hesitant to be curious because it’s done deal or whatever. But if you’re trying to just improve their performance, being curious would be essential because you need to know why they’re not performing the way that, that you need them to and work together to, to address the reasons I suppose.

Roberta Matuson (03:59):

Well, yes, and I agree. But I also, you know, if I need to let somebody go and I have followed these seven principles and I’ve had these conversations along the way, at some point, great leaders, you know, they want to know what could I have done differently so that we might’ve had a different ending here. Right? Because a lot of times it’s not the employees fault solely there, there are contributing factors. And so I’m curious. So I would ask that question, you know, in retrospect, is there anything we could have done differently that you think might’ve resulted in a different ending? And I might hear about things like, well, yeah, you could have actually trained me or you could have onboarded me or you could’ve made yourself more available, you know, and if I’m a magnetic leader, somebody that really wants to improve and attract and retain talent, I would want to know that

Amanda Setili (04:56):

You ever find that. Well, I mean, I know bosses go in intending to let someone go and then they change their mind because they get frayed to get delivered bad news, I guess. But do you find that you ever entered the conversation you’ve delivered the bad news, they’re going to leave, then you say, well, what could I have done differently? And you realize that it is, you know, a large part, your fault and you reversed your decision.

Roberta Matuson (05:24):

Listen, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with admitting like, wow, I had no idea. Maybe we can resolve this and rectify this situation because, you know, as you know, like finding talent right now is next to impossible for most companies. And so if it’s truly something that you might have, you know, emitted along the way and you, and you think about it and you reflect on it and you say, you know, I think we can maybe rectify the situation. Let’s give it another go. Are you game? I think that’s, that’s shows courage, right. Which is another one of the principles. But if it’s pretty clear that, you know, okay, I have the information, I still want to proceed. What I have my clients do is I want to make sure they understand that this is not like a reality TV show that the person who’s about to leave, isn’t going to go on to have their own reality TV show, you know? So I want to make sure that if it’s possible, you know, give the person a choice, you know, would you like to tender your resignation? Or would you prefer that I, you know, have a termination pack package ready for you by the end of the day? Like, you know, because in the end it’s not about winning, right? It’s about transitioning that person out in a way that’s respectful and in a way that will allow that person to quickly bounce back and for you to do the same.

Amanda Setili (06:58):

So if that is the choice resign or get a package, are you saying you can have some money, but you’ll be designated as being, let go, or you don’t get the money and you resign.

Roberta Matuson (07:13):

No, it’s not. I maybe I miss miss soak in that. It’s not like necessarily a package, but it’s like, you know, listen, we’re at a crossroad here and there two ways we can go. If you like, I’ll take your resignation right now, I’ll accept it. And then, you know, the record will show that you resigned and you can go home and tell your family that, or we’re going to need to, you know, terminate your employment here, which will also reflect on, you know, your, in your personnel file, which way do you want to go?

Amanda Setili (07:45):

What do you see people choosing?

Roberta Matuson (07:47):

Oh, more often than not. I see them choose the resignation because they want to leave with a clean record. I mean, nobody wants to go home and tell their partner. They were just fired. No, they don’t want to tell their friends that they wanted boast about, you know? Well, I just walked out of there and said, well, here’s my resignation, you know? Right. And that’s okay, because again, it’s not about the scorecard where, okay. I just one, I just fired them. I’ve got another one under my belt. It’s about how to get through a tough conversation in a way where everyone comes out a winner.

Amanda Setili (08:23):

So in one of your books, you talk to, I think it’s in talent minded magnetism. You talk about ending on a good note. And is that, is that what it is? Or is there even a better note you can end on?

Roberta Matuson (08:35):

I think it’s a pretty darn good note. You can get it out, you know, and I actually wound up doing that. I had, I was on the receiving end of a conversation like that. And I managed to talk my way into staying on an additional few months while they found somebody to replace me. And I’m, I wound up, you know, keeping my health insurance and, and my income. And it was really a win-win. And as a result I realized, and I talk about this in the book, like if you’re on the receiving end of this kind of a conversation, you have some power and don’t be so quick to give it away. And here’s what you might suggest. So the book contains conversations for not just leaders who have to have these difficult conversations, but also advice that I give my clients, who I coach on how to, you know, react and respond. If they’re on the receiving end, what

Amanda Setili (09:38):

Do you have and how would you respectfully exercise that power?

Roberta Matuson (09:42):

Well, if I’m a software engineer, I got a lot of power because these people are like, oh my God, there’s like millions of software job openings right now. And no one to fill them. So if I were in that situation, I would see if I could negotiate. You know, well, what if I just stayed on? And, you know, as a freelancer or perhaps if I, you know, just continued while I looked for another opportunity and this way you’re not stuck with no one to finish this project.

Amanda Setili (10:16):

Also, I think the source of your power is you will go out and say good things about the company. If they treat you well.

Roberta Matuson (10:25):

And you’ll tell everyone, you know what, it really wasn’t a good fit, but it is a great company, right?

Amanda Setili (10:31):

What do you think Roberta leads to people being happy at work, or at least being satisfied with their work where they’re really feeling like they’re doing what they’re good at people appreciate them. They’re learning. How do we get to that state? Or maybe you can redefine what you think drives satisfaction.

Roberta Matuson (10:49):

I think what drives satisfaction is people feeling like they have control over their work. And that may be as simple as control over their hours or control over their location, whether they’re working at home or in the office or a hybrid situation, whether they have control to take on, you know, new and exciting projects. And, you know, and that always goes back to the leader. We see some leaders are, you know, they give their people more control than others. And that does reflect when we look at the employee turnover numbers as well. You know, people don’t work for companies, they work for people.

Amanda Setili (11:29):

What do you think if you were the CEO of a company? So you have, you know, seven SVPs and 40 VPs and 250 managers. And, you know, you’ve got all these people working for you. What can you do to change the culture of the whole company so that everyone is granting employees control where they can grant control and where everyone gets good at shifting employees towards work that they do really well and, and really are enjoying

Roberta Matuson (12:01):

Well, it has to start with you. And so you can’t tell your managers in your VPs that you want people to have more control over their work when you yourself are controlling everything, right? So it has to start with you. And you can’t say to people, you know, I want to give you the ability to have more flexibility in your work schedule. Yet, here you are, the CEO, you never leave the office, right. Or maybe you have a baby and you don’t take maternity leave or paternity leave because you know, you have too much work to do so you have to start there. And then you have to take that down to the next level. And I always tell my clients like, be very, very careful who you let into management because not everyone should be a manager and certainly not everyone should be a VP. And so if you’re super selective and you hire the right people and people who have the similar values that you’re trying to cascade throughout the organization, this will be a lot easier than if you hire people that are, have a completely opposite view of the world of work.

Amanda Setili (13:11):

Is there a litmus test that you have for someone that’s going to be a good manager? Well, yeah.

Roberta Matuson (13:18):

Yes. I mean, I like to look at their past experience and I like to see what other people are saying about them. And that’s why I love LinkedIn so much. You can get to anyone on LinkedIn and when you’re hiring someone, it’s easy to find connections that they have, and they may have formerly worked for this individual and having conversations and asking before you make that hiring decision, you know, w what did you love about working for, you know, Sue and what did you think gotten her way? Right. And so, I mean, that’ll just give you more data than just making the mistake that a client of mine recently made. You know, she was such, she was in such a hurry to hire someone, and it was a very critical hire that she kind of skipped over the reference piece. And then five weeks later had to terminate a senior VP. Wow.

Amanda Setili (14:17):

How did she figure it out in just five weeks?

Roberta Matuson (14:20):

Well, she was very fortunate because she had an advisor on the board who she was able to kind of talk with about that. And then she, and I talked about that and you know, the advice did her advisor on the board gave her any advice I gave her was the same, like cut the cord and move on. But if she didn’t have access to that, she probably still would have had that guy doing the job thinking, oh, I, I can fix this right. When she realized that no, she couldn’t fix it. You see

Amanda Setili (14:54):

Great variability between companies in terms of how efficiently and effectively they make the process of exiting employee, who is not a good fit. Like, you know, some companies seem to let people linger forever, even if they’re not a good fit and others. And part of it is the managers and training and stuff like that. But as part of it, the process that they use, like what hoops a manager needs to jump through before they can let someone go. Yeah.

Roberta Matuson (15:22):

I think some of it is that, I mean, I say to my clients, you know, I’d like to see you do an amnesty day. Okay. And that is the day where you open the door and you say to your managers, listen, if you’ve got anyone on your team that you need to exit, I want you to come to me and tell me who they are. And you know, I may ask a few questions, but I’m not gonna place any blame here. And that’ll be the day that the decision will be made. Okay. These people are going to be transitioned out. What winds up happening is those leaders just feel like, well, you know, I’ve let it go this long. And that doesn’t reflect well on me. And so this amnesty day idea kind of just gives everybody free rein to say, okay, maybe I made a mistake. I’m not going to get punished. I need to make a decision and I need to move them out.

Amanda Setili (16:19):

And then what about the process for moving them out? You know, how, how does the performance improvement plan factor into that? And how many chances do you give them to improve? And,

Roberta Matuson (16:32):

Well, I think every company’s different. So for example, you know, this one company that I was just telling about this this CEO, this woman that I work with, she, they don’t, you know, they don’t have a process in place. They just go person by person and they can do that because they only have 30 employees now, but by the end of the year, they’re adding 40 people. And so at that point, we’ll have to put in some kind of process to make sure that people are eating, treated equitably. But what I love about this idea of giving people a choice, I tell when I train leaders on how to have these difficult conversations, I’m always like, listen, I want you to say that if this doesn’t improve this, could we, you know, you could, you know, we’re going to do this next, which could lead to termination. And then I say, you know, do you want, is that, you know, do you want us to go to the next step if necessary? Or are you interested in just, you know, moving on right now?

Amanda Setili (17:35):

Do you give the employee an easy exit early?

Roberta Matuson (17:37):

Yes. Because again, I am not of the mindset that this is the game that I have to win. Like, I want this person to have a great experience and I want them to feel like they’re, they been respected and they’ve been given ample opportunity. And that, you know, my guess is for most of these people, they know they’re not performing well when you tell them, and they’re not happy either. Right. So it’s sort of like, why stay in a marriage for 30 years? And you have no kids or whatever. And you’re both miserable, like ended after year one, if it’s not working out. Right.

Amanda Setili (18:18):

That’s really insightful Roberta, because I think that that period of trying to improve, trying to improve as an employee is unpleasant. And so if they just think, oh, I could just resign now, move on. Maybe the boss at the next place I work will be better. Or maybe the work will fit me better. Or maybe, you know, I can find something I enjoy more. And don’t, I’m not going to put myself through this of trying to please this person. Exactly good advice. Thank you. You know, I hear these statistics that only, I don’t know whether to believe them or not, but only 30% of employees are engaged at work and things like that. What do you think the reality is there and how does it differ by type of employee or type of industry or, you know, workplace culture?

Roberta Matuson (19:01):

Well, I think it varies greatly by workplace culture, right? Because there’s some organizations that really are great to work in. And then there are others where, you know, everyone knows, man, you go there and like, what are you doing? Like maybe you’re selling your soul, right? Maybe they pay really, really well, but everybody knows, like there’s no such thing as a free paycheck, right? They want your heart and soul. And if you’re willing to give that up right now, that’s, you know, that’s what you’re going to get. So I do believe those numbers are accurate. What I’m astonished about is the amount of money companies will spend like doing these employee engagement surveys. And then the only people, you know, that the only people making money on this, to be honest with you, are they companies selling these surveys, but then they don’t do anything with the information. And that is worse than doing nothing at all. Like don’t even, I tell my clients, if you’re not going to change anything, don’t even bother. Don’t even do these surveys. Right.

Amanda Setili (20:05):

Right. So of the cultures that are particularly bad at this, what are the three worst things they do that cause this lack of engagement and unhappiness at work, they allow

Roberta Matuson (20:16):

People to remain in leadership roles who should not be in those jobs. Their policies are not flexible. They haven’t changed. I mean, everything in life has changed since COVID yet, they haven’t changed how they’re operating. Right. And they’re not adjusting their compensation. Here’s a prime example. My son just got an offer. He’s graduating college in June. He’s a computer science major. And he got an offer for a software engineer position from his co-op employer. And last year, those same students who came out of the program who were co-op students. His offer was 33% higher this year than the offer they made last year. And companies are operating under this false sense that, you know, oh, okay. So let’s just say last year we paid these computer programmers a hundred thousand this year. If we offer them 105, w that’s a good bump, right. 5%. But these people are getting offers that are 25, 30% higher. Yet these companies are still, you know, with their heads in the sand saying, oh, well, we can’t compete, but they haven’t gone out to the market to see what’s going on. And so I have one client that actually does you know, it looks at their compensation structure now quarterly and in the past that was typically done annually.

Amanda Setili (21:50):


Roberta Matuson (21:51):

Yeah, it’s pretty remarkable.

Amanda Setili (21:53):

And that’s very different.

Roberta Matuson (21:55):

Yes it is. But it’s, what’s necessary right now. That’s how fast those ranges are moving. And if you want to be able to compete, there’s so much money in the venture capital world right now, being given out to startups that these startups can now compete with the fortune 500 companies for talent because they have the money. But if you’re in that middle place where you’re not a startup, right, and you’re not a fortune 500 company, and you’re still working in this old model, you’ll, you’ll find that your people will be leaving rapidly and you won’t be able to replace them. Well,

Amanda Setili (22:30):

It’s interesting because from the CEO’s perspective, they’re thinking, okay, so if I increase, everybody’s pay 33% this year too, so that they don’t get, you know, the new hires don’t leap ahead of them. Then what do I do next year? And then how does that affect my cost structure? And then how does that affect my profitability? And then do I raise prices? And if I raise prices, will I lose market share? And there’s just this cascade of cause and effect. That’s pretty scary from the CEO’s perspective.

Roberta Matuson (23:00):

Well, I would ask the question, what if I do nothing?

Amanda Setili (23:03):

Oh, true. Yeah. The alternative could be worse.

Roberta Matuson (23:06):

Right. And I look at, I mean, you know, I think today they announced like inflation is the highest it’s been in over 30 years. Everything that I have purchased, everything, the price has gone up everything. And so it is no longer shocking if you raise your prices, you know, whatever percentage you deem is necessary. No, one’s going to think twice because they’re like, well, yeah, it costs more money to run the building. Now, if you’re in the office, it costs more money to buy food. It costs more money for everything. And so this is the time if you’re gonna, if you’re increasing what you’re charging customers, I can guarantee you that your competitors are doing the same. So,

Amanda Setili (23:50):

Yeah. So well you, you live in Boston where there’s a lot of high-tech firms. There’s a lot of venture capital money. So maybe, you know, that whole ecosystem is rising together or needs to rise together. But I do think that there’s companies that are in more basic industry in other areas of the country, that would be that it would be difficult for them to play that pay raise game potentially

Roberta Matuson (24:18):

Well in those markets, they may not need to go up 35%, you know, 8% might be a big move. So not everybody. And we’re talking about, you know, the example I gave you is for somebody looking for a software engineer, even for other positions, we’re seeing that the salaries that are being paid this year for, you know, 20, 22 grads, the offers that are coming out are pretty significant. I had, I joked with my husband because my son’s sign on bonus was more money than what I made when I came out of college for a whole year. But that’s reality like that’s, what’s happening now. So you gotta, you gotta know what the reality is, whether you choose to do anything is up to you, but you have to be aware, you cannot keep your head in the sand and say, well, we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and hope and pray because I’ll tell you hope is not a strategy.

Amanda Setili (25:17):

What’s the best source for if a company is not big enough to commission their own competitive pay study or, you know, to get Mercer or somebody to come in and do that, what’s the best source for competitive pay information.

Roberta Matuson (25:31):

I always I tell my clients to, you know, call a head hunter, right. And just say, you know, Hey, I’m looking to fill a job for a such and such we’re role interview the head hunter, and just say, what should I be anticipating as far as what are you seeing as far as salaries are going for that particular job. But I would also say that, yes, there are the Mercers out there and, and the big, you know, compensation consulting firms, but there are also, you know, individual consultants and I’m not one of them who do compensation. So you don’t have to have, you know, a five-star, you know, big firm doing it for you. There’s also associations that if you belong to an association like the American manufacturing association, many times they will provide salary studies to their members. So I would, you know, start there.

Amanda Setili (26:31):

Yeah. Good, good. One last question. Do you have any advice for how companies can get better at matching people to work that they’re going to be really good at and most energized and fulfilled by?

Roberta Matuson (26:44):

Absolutely. one of the key areas that I help my clients with is something that I call selecting for success. And it’s really knowing how to interview people and understanding the responses they’re giving you. Right. And so recently I did a program for a major company and, you know, an experienced leader came to me and she said, oh my gosh, I’ve been like interviewing for 25 years. And now I finally know why I’m asking these questions. Right. And so when you understand like, well, what are you, why are you asking these questions? What are you seeking? How do you interpret the information you’re getting? You’re going to make a much, you’re going to do a much better job of matching the right candidate and seeing and determining if that person is really the right fit for your company.

Amanda Setili (27:34):

And what about when they’re already in the company, they may have even worked there 10 or 15 years. Do you see any best practices in terms of just validating or speaking with employees about what they, what their dream job is, how they could migrate to that GM dream job, how they can make their current job into their dream job, things like that.

Roberta Matuson (27:52):

Yeah. This comes really back to where we started with having a conversation. And, you know, my conversations with, with employees often are, you know, what were your hopes and dreams when you took this job and, you know, are you moving towards those dreams? And if not, what can I do to help you get there?

Amanda Setili (28:14):

Have you seen any best practices in terms of companies allowing fluid movement between business units or divisions? When I see often as managers, hoard employees, and, you know, there’s a extreme hesitancy to even provide visibility sometimes into who’s good and your department, because you really don’t want to lose them. And so employees kind of get stuck in a lane when they’d really like to change lanes within their own company. Have you seen any best practices in terms of improving the fluidity across functions, divisions, business units, et cetera?

Roberta Matuson (28:52):

Yes. my clients that do really well in this area, as far as getting, you know, permitting people to move around and encouraging them, they become known as talent magnets, right. And everybody wants to go work for them in the organization. Cause they know if they work for Bob or Jane or Sue, they’re going to get, they’re going to see movement. They’re going to get promoted. They’re going to get to try new things. And so they get this stellar reputation, which also enhances their brand, their personal brand in the organization. And they get noticed as opposed to the person that’s hoarding talent and, you know, look, people, you know, you can try to hold onto them for as long as you can, but if you don’t give them an opportunity inside your organization, they’re going to find an opportunity outside,

Amanda Setili (29:41):

Especially now. Definitely, definitely Roberta. It has been so fun talking with you and I just have learned so much. I really appreciate you coming on today. So thanks so much for coming well, thank you for having me and good luck and keep talking. Thank you for listening to fearless growth. You can find out more about the show at [inaudible] dot com slash podcast, and you can listen on apple podcasts and Spotify. If you like what you’ve heard, please take a moment to write a review and give us a star rating reviews matter so much in helping others find us. Thanks for your support.


We all want to do work we love, and as leaders, entrepreneurs and employees, wouldn’t it be great to create workplaces where work feels like play? Where people are tuned in to changes going on in the world around them? Where they’re constantly learning, spotting new opportunities, and taking action to go after them? These traits are essential to an organization’s agility and success. In the Fearless Growth podcast, Amanda Setili and her guests explore the mindsets and choices that lead individuals, leaders and their organizations to outstanding performance.

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